Bringing the Sizzle Back to McDonald’s

Donald Thompson worked his way up the fast-food giants ladder to become one of its highest-ranking executives

Thompson had already improved _performance at some 330 restaurants there.

Business has turned around in the U.S. Now some 26 million _customers visit a McDonald’s each day–and that number is expected to grow. Mark Basham, equity analyst for Standard & Poor’s, believes the trend toward eating out more will continue, which will only help McDonald’s. This, combined with an expanded menu, is among the reasons he maintains a strong buy recommendation on the company’s stock. “Their healthy menu alternatives have turned around same-store and same-restaurant sales over the last three years, and I expect that to continue,” he says. “This turnaround program has been going on for three years, but they’ve also taken significant steps to improve franchise relations.”

Thompson, who has a degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University, began his career at McDonald’s in 1990 as a restaurant systems engineer. Since then, he excelled in a slew of positions that have one common thread: They performed better from a business and financial standpoint after his arrival. He did it by focusing on quality not quantity, expanding menu offerings, and improving customer satisfaction and efficiency. In recognition, he has earned numerous promotions throughout the $21.6 billion corporation. He also earned the title black enterprise 2007 Corporate Executive of the Year.

Ironically, Thompson initially had no desire to work for the _golden arches. After graduation, he landed a job designing radar jamming systems for fighter planes as an engineer specialist with Northrop Corp. in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. Today, defense contractors are faring well, but in the post-Cold War years of the late 1980s the industry was cooling off. As a result, there was _downsizing, and Thompson, who oversaw a team, sometimes was the bearer of bad news. “Being a government contractor, we’d get a list on a Monday morning. It was last in, first out, so it was not based on competency,” he recalls. If team members were on the list, Thompson would tap them on the _shoulder and instruct them to follow him. “You couldn’t tell them any more than that. You’d lead them into a room where they had to be debriefed from a security perspective, and they were walked back to their desk. Whatever they could carry in their arms is what they could carry out, because it was a secure facility. It was tough.”

While Thompson was feeling less than happy with his career path, fate intervened. A cold-call from a recruiter would have a dramatic impact on his future. “He said things like robotics, control circuitry, feedback loops–all the things that excite an engineer,” recalls Thompson. When the recruiter said the name of the company was McDonald’s, Thompson assumed he meant McDonnell Douglas, an aerospace manufacturer/defense contractor that later merged with Boeing.

Thompson recalls the rest of conversation:
Thompson: “When should I come to St. Louis for the interview?”
Recruiter: “St. Louis?”
Thompson: “Yeah, isn’t that where McDonnell Douglas is?”
Recruiter: “This is McDonald’s hamburger.”
Thompson: “You got the wrong guy, because I’m not flipping hamburgers for anybody.”

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